Marjane Satrapi and the Power Behind “Persepolis”
Photo: Chronicle/Darryl Bush
“People without a sense of humor are not very smart,” author Marjane Satrapi said during a candid, heart-to-heart conversation at the Annenberg Center of Communication, the University of Pennsylvania on Thursday. An audience of over 300 students, academics and fans broke into applause.
Satrapi is a widely loved French Iranian author who explores the gaping divide between East and West through powerfully evocative graphic novels. Her most celebrated work is “Persepolis”— an autobiography that takes the form of an adult comic book. Redolent with rebellious passion and wit, Persepolis received enormous success and was later adapted into a film directed by Satrapi herself. “Persepolis,” the film, went on to win numerous awards, including the César Awards for Best Feature Film and Best Writing, and an Academy Award nomination for Best Animated Feature Film of the Year in 2008.
Satrapi was invited by the Levin Family Dean’s Forum, hosted by the University of Pennsylvania School of Arts and Sciences. The forum is committed to highlighting innovation in the Liberal Arts by presenting leading intellectual figures to celebrate the richness of art and history since 1984. She spoke in conversation with Fatemeh Shams, an assistant professor of Near Eastern Languages and Civilizations at Penn about Iranian politics, Middle Eastern culture and the debilitating cynicism induced by living under war and trauma.
“It has been a longstanding dream of mine to meet Marjane Satrapi because as an Iranian immigrant myself, I saw myself in Persepolis,” Shams said at the beginning of the talk. “Satrapi’s elegant and assertive voice speaks out not only to the Iranian diaspora community but also to a much wider group of people experiencing the struggle of otherness who find themselves disempowered. Satrapi’s work motivates them to occupy space, express themselves more freely and shake off the feeling of being aliens.”
Shams then went on to quiz Satrapi about the avenues through which she draws inspiration and the motivations behind her writing.
“When I came to France at the age of 24, people had a lot of questions,” Satrapi said when asked why she uses comics to get her words across. “They had a lot of negative misconceptions about Iran. And, there is nobody more convinced than an ignorant person. The less people know, the more they are convinced about the legitimacy of their limited knowledge. I grew tired of explaining myself over and over again so I decided to finish the discussion once and for all.”
“The easiest way for me to express the complexity of Iranian culture and address xenophobia was to talk through pictures,” Satrapi said. “I don’t like talking, talking, talking,” Satrapi jested, shaking her head and mimicking a talking mouth through hand gestures.
Shams went on to ask Satrapi about her experience with film and why she decided to adapt Persepolis for the big screen.
“I had no desire, no whim to pursue film. In fact, I was forced into it by a friend who wanted to see Persepolis adapted for the big screen,” Satrapi said. “I was afraid of messing it up because as you know, adaptations aren’t always a success. However, when I was handed so much money by Celluloid Films to venture into cinema, I couldn’t resist. I found myself diving head-first into an ocean without knowing how to swim.”
There is nothing more efficient than film to get a message across, Satrapi said, adding that film allows one to invade the world with cinema.
“Even though I was initially reluctant, I found myself slowly warming up to this new form of art,” Satrapi said.
The discussion progressed with Shams comparing Satrapi’s “Persepolis” with her other novel, “Embroideries.”
Shams asked Satrapi about the “marked difference” in both the language and the drawings in “Persepolis” and “Embroideries,” and how stylistic departure came to be.
“I used very simple, serious art in Persepolis because I didn’t want to distract my readers from the complicated subject matter,” Satrapi said. “Embroideries, however, is a conversation between two women about sexuality in the conservative Iranian society. It is more lighthearted, gossipy and humorous because it is in the form of friendly banter.”
Satrapi further discussed the power of language and the way it stimulates thinking and shapes minds.
“Language is not just a matter of saying words a specific way,” she said. “It is a way of thinking. With each language we learn, we learn a new way of looking at the world.”
Halfway through, the focus of the conversation shifted from Satrapi’s work to her views on politics and culture. Satrapi and Shams lamented on the ill-treatment of women in Iran and the many forms of social and legal restrictions on female mobility.
“Iranian women are lions. In a strictly patriarchal society, they continue to push nonsensical boundaries that put bars on their self-expression,” Satrapi said.
Satrapi also expressed her dismay at the American government’s involvement in Iran, saying that terror can not be fought with terror. The Iran War served as the backdrop of Persepolis because she wanted to paint a ghastly picture of war — a picture that was devoid of any romantic ideals and bombards the reader with a torrent of anti-war sentiment similar to the ballistic missiles being dropped over the characters in Persepolis, she said.
“I loved seeing Satrapi in person,” Patricia Fernandez, a sophomore at Temple University, said. “Satrapi was exactly like I imagined her to be, with her sharp humor and scathing honesty.”
Margaret Peterson, a high school English teacher, was another attendee at the event who said she enjoyed the conversation.
Peterson said that Persepolis is part of her school’s curriculum so it was only natural for her to rush over when she heard Satrapi was in Philadelphia.
“Her work has made us laugh, cry and sometimes do both at the same time,” Peterson said.
” My students are so deeply engrossed in the world of Persepolis’ Marji even though she comes from a completely different world,” she said, adding how she couldn’t wait to tell her students that she had finally met “their Marji.”
The event came to an end with Satrapi’s final statement against extremism and bigotry, whether it is in the form of terrorism in the name of Islam or through war-crimes undertaken beneath the guise of protecting American citizens. As she bowed before her audience, Satrapi the novelist and Satrapi the Iranian immigrant merged together, no longer just a 2D comic in “Persepolis”, but a three-dimensional speaker, hoping to share her enlightened insights with the world.